Call of Duty: Black Ops II

The origin of Call of Duty's most-heard sound

Evan Lahti at

When you shoot someone in Call of Duty, there’s a noise. It's positive feedback—a fwip-fwip-fwip to let you know that your bullet, knife, claymore, or phoned-in helicopter is hurting someone. While visiting Treyarch I asked the Black Ops 2 sound team about the creation of the simple-but-essential effect.

PCG: Why does it sound the way it does when I shoot someone in Call of Duty?

Brian Tuey, Audio Director: So... The sound has impact and it has meaning and it's useful and all that, but it's not a particularly pleasant sound, especially in isolation. There was a time recently where I was like, "You know? I'm gonna redo this with something else." So I kinda went a different direction, and it felt like this was going to be good. I checked it in, and within three hours, my email box was full of, like, "WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO MY SOUND?" I'm like, "But it's so much better!"

Chris Cowell, Audio Lead: The other thing that you might not actually know, it's different every game.

Really?

Cowell: It has to be. They're all very similar, and they serve the same purpose, but the actual content and the creation of it is redone every game, because our guns sound differently, you know? The music's different, the situation's different...

Tuey: Our whole DSP chain in the engine is completely different. The same stuff doesn't sound the same anymore.

Cowell: Little things like that can be a really difficult sound to make. The last game, it took me weeks to get that little thing right, because you have to fire it, get the tick and hear it and know what it means.

Tuey: But it has to cut through the guns, the explosions, and give you the same exact feeling you had when you heard it last game.

Cowell: Yeah. It's the same experience. That experience needs to be consistent across all of them, but not the sound.

Tuey: And that's what the problem was with the new one I dropped in, it sounded different. So the experience was different, so people who were playing the game didn't even know I'd changed it, right? It's not like we make a big production about, "Hey, I changed this sound!" Well, sometimes we do. But usually we just want to see what people's reactions are.

What did it sound like when you changed it?

Tuey: I made it sound more like a bullet hitting somebody, as opposed to a tick. But it's more important for us that the gameplay aspect of it is supported, versus "Hey, now it sounds more real."

Shawn Jimmerson, Sound Designer: You want to know that your bullet has hit someone, especially in MP. You're firing and you want that immediate feedback that I am actually scoring hits. There's a lot of expectation, you know, even in films, when somebody punches somebody else, it's not a realistic sound...

Cowell:Whpssh!

Jimmerson: But people have that expectation. Within our community, there's that same sort of thing. There are certain things that you just don't want to mess with too much, because you just upset people who are playing your game.

This strange, sound-creating box of robot spaghetti lives in Treyarch's audio studio.

About a year ago in Team Fortress 2 I changed my hit sound to the Sonic "ring." It’s pretty Pavlovian, it's a good incentive for shooting people.

Cowell: Yeah, that's a good one. That's another good classic sound that has a lot of meaning behind it. When you hear those sounds, that tink-tink-tink-tink, and you're like, "Yeah!"

Tuey: It probably took a sound designer weeks to make that just right.

Cowell: To get it just right, that stuff's really hard.

Tuey: Just for nobody to ever go, "Whoa, that's a really awesome sound."

Cowell: But then you know you love it, you know, when you put it in there. It's the same thing, you know? It's giving you that... "I know what that means" feeling.

Jimmerson: I was just going to say, one of our sound designers had a great observation the other day, that there's no correlation between the time it takes to work on a sound and the significance of the sound in the game in a visual sense. Like, a helicopter can crash, and I'm like, "Okay, I know this is going to have metal, an explosion, a fireball, all these different elements," but what does it sound like when you interface with this thing and say "Yes”? Or you push that button? What does that sound like? The simplest sound can take you so much longer to work on. And again, usually if you get it to a place where it's right, no one will ever think about it, necessarily. And that's good. People should be like, "Oh, of course it sounds like that when I interact with this future thing that I've never seen before and doesn't even exist."